Blue Plaques

HOOKER, Sir William (1785–1865) & HOOKER, Sir Joseph (1817–1911)

Plaque erected in 2010 by English Heritage at 49 Kew Green, Kew, London, TW9 3AA, London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames

All images © English Heritage

Profession

Botanists

Category

Gardening, Science

Inscription

Sir WILLIAM HOOKER 1785-1865 Sir JOSEPH HOOKER 1817-1911 Botanists Directors of Kew Gardens lived here

Material

Ceramic

Since 1851, 49 Kew Green has been the official residence of the director of Kew Gardens. The first two inhabitants, and two of the most influential directors, were Sir William Hooker and his son, Sir Joseph Hooker. 

Sir William Hooker in the late 1850s while he was living at 49 Kew Gardens © National Portrait Gallery, London

BOTANICAL PIONEER

Born in Norwich in 1785, William Jackson Hooker demonstrated a passion for botany as a young man. By the time he had turned 20, he had already discovered a previously unknown moss, which strengthened his conviction that he was ‘determined to give up everything for botany’. This commitment was sealed in 1806 by his election to the Linnean Society, formed for the study of natural history and taxonomy. By 1820 Hooker had been appointed Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University, where he proved a popular lecturer and a prolific author, publishing several important studies.

In 1841 William Hooker was appointed director of the newly nationalised Botanic Gardens at Kew, which had fallen into neglect since the death of Sir Joseph Banks in 1820. During Hooker’s 24 years at Kew Gardens, he dramatically increased their size – from 11 acres to 75 acres of botanic garden and 270 acres of arboretum and pleasure grounds – and transformed their appearance by forming the lake, laying out the avenues and vistas, and building over 20 new glasshouses, including the Palm House.

His most lasting innovation, however, was the opening of the gardens to the public from 1pm to 6pm each day. Just 9,000 people visited in 1841, but by 1865 the number had risen to over half a million. At his death, Hooker had published over a hundred volumes of botanical works and had formed an unrivalled herbarium and botanical library, which he bequeathed to Kew.

49 Kew Green, listed at Grade II, is an amalgam of a number of buildings dating from the early 18th to the early 19th centuries, all of brown brick. William Hooker is commemorated within the house by a chimneypiece decorated with a Wedgwood portrait medallion, appropriately flanked by two plaques depicting examples from his favourite plant group – ferns. Since his death, subsequent directors of Kew Gardens and their families have lived at 49 Kew Green, including his son.

Sir Joseph Hooker in 1876. A close friend of Charles Darwin, he succeeded his father, William, as director of Kew Gardens in 1855 © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Joseph Hooker attended his father’s lectures from the age of seven. Between 1839 and 1843 he travelled as assistant surgeon and botanist aboard HMS Erebus, exploring the southern oceans. Shortly after his return Hooker was asked to classify the plants Charles Darwin had gathered in the Galápagos. It was the beginning of a lifelong collaborative friendship, with Hooker becoming a valuable, though not uncritical, defender of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In 1847–9 he made an expedition to the Himalayas, surveying the fauna and sending back about 7,000 specimens to Kew. Hooker’s greatest botanical work, The Flora of British India, appeared between 1872 and 1897.

In 1855 Joseph Hooker was made assistant to his father and, on Sir William’s death in 1865, succeeded him as director. In 1873 he was elected President of the Royal Society, through which he promoted wider public participation in science. Joseph Hooker died in 1911.

Kew and the British Empire

In the imperial Britain of the 19th century, plants from across the globe were cultivated as sources of food, medicine, clothing and construction, and were effectively used as a means to expand the empire’s wealth and power. Under the Hookers’ directorship, The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew played an important role in this. They coordinated the movement of plants and seeds all over the world, and employed plant collectors to hunt for ‘green gold’ – plants that could be commercialised for a profit. 

In 1859–60 William Hooker and Kew helped to transplant cinchona (a tree from which quinine, an anti-malaria drug, was made) from South America to India enabling this lucrative crop to be produced in a British-controlled territory. Similarly, under Joseph Hooker’s direction in the 1870s, rubber seeds (Hevea brasilensis) were removed from Brazil to be grown in British colonies such as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Singapore. This exploitation of a foreign country’s natural resources took no account of any impacts on local industry or the wider environment. 

Nearby Blue Plaques

Nearby Blue Plaques


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